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Out of sight; out of mind – a parallel view of cigarette packets and aggressive secularism

There have been a few discussions recently concerning the future of cigarette packaging and it brought to mind my recent post on the nature of secularism. The current proposal, as I understand it, is to remove any particular branding from cigarettes and to not have them displayed in shops. The end-game, if you will allow me to jump, is to reduce the consumption of cigarettes. The idea is to make them as unappealing as possible. Now, from my own point of view, I still find it pretty hard to see why anyone would want to roll up fragments of a dried weed into a small tube of paper, stick in their mouth and set fire to one end of it. But, my own personal views on the matter aside, what I’m interested in is looking at the parallels between the government’s plan and what many Christians see as an aggressive secular agenda in society as a whole. I will also aim to point out the differences, so as to not appear scaremongering, unreasonable or to possess any other characteristic that could be considered characteristic of your average Daily Mail article. I shall attempt to lay this out in a slightly simplistic manner, though for reasons of my own clarity, rather than patronising of you, since you are almost certainly more intelligent than I am. As ever, if you think I have made any factual errors, or have misunderstood something, then please let me know; I don’t profess to be perfect!

Removal of packaging
In the smoking debate, you will need to know the name of the brand if you are to request it from a shop keeper. If you were to walk into a shop and have a browse around, then there should be no evidence of the existence of cigarettes in the shop, expect for maybe a surreptitious reach under the counter when someone else asks for them. If you see someone smoking on the street (because that’s pretty much the only public place you can do it now) then it should be something of a mystery as to where to obtain these magical fire sticks and what the difference is between one and the other.

In discussions about various religions, there is a parallel of debranding by referring to “religion” as though it is one thing, with the various different religions being merely variations on a theme. In other words it becomes acceptable to ignore the cultural, historical and revelatory nature of the origins of various beliefs and instead to speak of a post-Enlightenment master narrative whereby all religions can be considered to be some sort of mental illness. The aim of this type of discussion is to assume that all religions must, a priori, be false and to start the discussion from that point; if you start from the same position over and over again, you can kid yourself that that is the appropriate place to start from, regardless of the falsity of the proposition.

So in order for someone who is vaguely interested in one or more of the religions will, by societal conditioning, find it harder and harder to know where to start. If one religion is, on the surface presentation, essentially the same as another, then what is there to decide between them? One would have to try out various “brands” to find out what the substance is behind them. But this is a lot of effort for a speculative investment of one’s time and therefore likely to be offputting. So just at the aim with the smoking is to reduce demand for smoking, so discussions about religions as though they are part of a more or less homogenous continuum subverts the ‘real’ discussions, particularly those of comparative studies and serve the purpose of putting off people from investigating religions, thinking for themselves and coming up with their own independent conclusions on the validity of the claims of various systems of beliefs.

There are, however, differences. For one, the smoking reforms are coming from a governmental mandate, whereas as the secular agenda is far more subtle. In spite of various conservative Christians decrying an alleged anti-christian agenda within politics, I would find it extremely hard to imagine a set of circumstances whereby a similar law would be proposed, let alone passed, within the UK to “remove the packaging” from the various religions. Churches can still display crosses (whether empty or full), mosques will still be allowed to display crescent moons on top of them and synagogues will still be able to show the star of David. The closest thing to this sort of legislation being proposed anywhere that I can recall was about a year ago when Switzerland called for the banning of the building of minarets.

Removal from the shop display
In spite of this, the false perception of the homogeneity of religions still assumes that they are out there and in the public eye. At present, smoking paraphernalia is still displayed behind shop counters so that, providing you have the courage to ask for it, you can purchase the said goods. With the proposal to move cigarettes away from the shelves, we have another prong in the government attack on the demand of cigarette consumption. The idea behind it is “out of sight, out of mind.” So whilst smoking is still legal on the street and in the private home, this is a further curb at trying to push it as far out of the public mind as possible. In particular, a key demographic being targeted are the under 20s who may be considering taking up smoking as their expensive and carcinogenic habit of choice. The best way to reduce the demand for a product is to create a culture that is ignorant of its existence. While not going all the way to banning smoking, this is just one step further along that path. I don’t know if I’ll ever see smoking outlawed in this country during my lifetime, but I would be fooling only myself if I thought that this was the final measure taken by any government to reduce smoking via legislation rather than merely a health initiative.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with certain aggressive strands of secularism which want to drive the remaining aspects of religion out of public life. For example, the British Humanist Association has an active campaign against Thought For The Day, a 5 minute religious slot in Radio 4’s The Today Programme. Every now and then, you also hear whinges about the existence of Songs of Praise taking up prime broadcasting time. Most recently there is another campaign by the BHA to try and tell people what they should put on their census forms. The underhanded trick that they have used, though, is the one of the lack of branding mentioned above. It is all about being opposed to any religion by lumping them together and saying that you are not religious. Now I am a christian, but I rarely describe myself as religious. While this may go slightly against Paul (“the mysteries of our religion”) the main use of the term in the New Testament is as a negative connotation denoting those that are bound by rules and those that do the binding as a form of political power; e.g. the Pharisees. But Christianity is not founded on this. Any ‘rules’ per se emerge from the only 2 underlying principles of “love God with all your heart, mind, soul & strength” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” Anyone who thinks Christianity is a set of rules has not understood it (see Romans 7:6 – plus the surrounding context).

Anyway, minor rant aside, the aim of the BHA census campaign, along with a poll which they commissioned to look at a smaller sample but which they nonetheless profess to be more accurate (could it possibly be because the second poll agreed with their pre-formed conclusions, perhaps?), is to drive religion out of public life. Now while I have said before that there is a fine line between a lack of religious privilege (something Martin Luther was very keen on) and the removal of the face of various faiths from the public arena. The pettiness of the Today Programme campaign shows to what extent this attempt to remove religion has. I have yet to really make up my mind on the inclusion of bishops in the House of Lords. On the whole, I lean towards not having them there, but then I would not single them out as an object of prejudice in the manner of the BHA. If any change is to be made to the Lords it needs to be wholesale and non-discriminatory. There is also the matter of how important a role they actually play. In any televised proceedings, I have not seen any bishops present, let alone speak. And I think they have rather better things to do with their time.

Yet this does differ from the smoking reforms insofar as the attempt to marginalise different faiths (and Christianity in particular) is not government-led. It is led by small, vocal, sections of society who are intolerant of those whose opinions in certain matters differ from their own. While this country has a distinct and well-evidence christian heritage, in spite of what various revisionists may claim, this is a secular state. Different faiths co-exist almost entirely peaceably with one another and faith communities lead the drive in charity and volunteering. I am happy that we don’t have a supposed theocracy, where a fallible person is appointed as an unquestionable authority acting in loco deus. But what I do not agree with are attempts to make those who practice various religions/faiths/systems of belief into social pariahs. Though ideas of freedom of expression and democracy are not inherently biblical, I don’t think there can be many of us of a liberal persuasion that disagree that they are fundamentally good things. In order for the fair balance allowing religions and beliefs to operate freely within a secular framework, there has to be an absence of privilege and prejudice in relation to these matters. It is increasingly evident that organisations like the BHA and NSS are not really acting as balanced as they would like to think they are. In the name of removing religious privilege, they are instead acting as prejudicial bodies, pandering to the phobias of their constituent members – not unlike some churches!

Conclusion
So what shall I say then? It seems clear to me (and I hope I have been clear in my written communication to you) that there are parallels between the marginalisation of smokers and those of adherents to particular belief systems. The key difference is what is the subject of official legislation and what comes about from a less clear-cut, societal pressure, epitomised by certain scaremongers with their own agenda. But underneath this there is a difference of substance. I can imagine the scoffers thinking “Ah, but one is a carcinogenic menace to society that serves only to meet an irrational craving. And the other is smoking.” In reality, and here I speak only of Christianity, the difference is of life on the one hand and death on the other, and I’d rather walk down The Way of Life.

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